Using the String Method for Consistent Portraits

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In this lesson, we wanted to show how to set up and shoot the perfect portrait every time. With a few simple tips and tricks, you can rig your portrait gear to save time and make any “school portrait” type jobs a snap.

Everything you need to start using the tips we are about to unfold can be purchased from any hardware store for a few bucks. The “String” method refers to simply attaching a length of string to each piece of gear you use to shoot your portraits. Each of these strings are set to a specific length and then color coded so you can identify them.

Topics Covered:

  • The concept of the string method
  • Creating a basic portrait set
  • Setting your gear for consistent results


Additional Material

  • A tape measure
  • A marker
  • At least 15 to 20 feet of line/string
  • Scissors
  • A roll of tape

The Concept of the String Method

The intensity of light declines as the light travels farther away from its source. More light will fall on an object close to a light source than an object farther from the light source. Simple enough.

Therefore, the exposure values when shooting are dependent on the distance between each light and the subject. This means that consistent exposures can be repeated by keeping the light to subject distance consistent.

Once the proper distance for all portrait light sources is established by testing exposure levels, the distance of each light source from the subject can be repeated time and again with predictable results.

All a photographer needs to do is establish how to accurately replicate the distance between the subject and the light sources. We find that the old tried and true string method works great. This lesson will show how to set up your lighting scenario to save time when determining proper exposures on location.

Creating a Basic Portrait Set

Below we show the completed lighting solution for this lesson; each of the lights have been labeled as to what their purpose is in the lesson. We used a standard four light portrait set including a main/key, a fill, a hair, and a background light.

The best way to establish your light to subject distances it to set your lighting solution where you want it with results you like. Then you can mark your lights with the strings one at a time.

To show the effect of each light on our subject, we took a shot of our model after setting up each light.

The first step in setting up our gear was to set our key light in the proper position for the basic portrait. We chose to use a StarLite Medium Digital Kit. We positioned the key light for a broad light portrait, that is to say about 45 degrees from the camera, on the right of the set.

The image below shows the result of using the main light only. The high contrast and lack of shadow detail in the shot can be easily corrected with a fill reflector.

To solve the contrast issues we had with our first result, we first set up a Photoflex LiteDisc Holder and attached a 32″ White/Silver LiteDisc to it with the white side toward the subject. Once we had the fill assembled, we set it to camera left at about 45 degrees from the camera and 3 feet from the subject and made another exposure.

The examples below show the comparison of results when shooting with only the main light and when using the main light and reflector fill. In our resulting shot, we see the effect of the LiteDisc on the subject and the reduction of the overall contrast.

While the results using the LiteDisc were good, we wanted to show you a second option, so we decided to use a second StarLite Medium Digital Kit to replace the LiteDisc reflector.

We set the fill light in its proper position, next to the camera on the opposite side of the first key light. The light to subject distance of this light was about 1-1/2 to 2 feet more than the main light distance. This ensures that the fill light is not as bright as the main, helping to achieve a better highlight to shadow ratio.

Below we show the comparison of results when shooting with the main light and reflector fill and the main light and fill light.

In our resulting shot, we see the effect of the fill light on the subject. We reduced the contrast another notch and added an extra spark to the shot.

The next item for this classic portrait set up was to add a hair light. This is also referred to as a separation light because, as it lights the head and shoulders of the subject, it also aids in the separation of the subject from the background, adding depth and dimension to the overall image.

We used a Photoflex Small HalfDome on a Boom and Boom Stand, as our hair light. Once we had setup this assembly, we moved the light into our set from camera right. We set the light above the top of our subject, just behind the shoulders and about 3 and a half feet from the top of the model’s head. The HalfDome was then rotated toward the model so that the light would only strike our models shoulders and head.

To clearly illustrate the effects of the hair light, we shut down the key and the fill lights and made an exposure with just the hair light. With the position set properly, the separation light just strikes the head and shoulders of the subject without illuminating the face.

With the hair light in position, we powered up the key and fill lights and shot our next set of images. The example below shows the previous result shot without the hair light and shows the result shot with the hair light. Notice the nice separation between the hair and shoulders from the background.

To complete our lighting setup, we added a light to the background, this would add more depth to the shot by further separating of the subject from the background. This is a light you may need to make more than one “strings” for, to cover each of the backgrounds you use in your portrait work. For this lesson, we chose to make a light to dark gradation on the background starting from the bottom of the image.

To create this effect we used a Photoflex Starlite Small Digital Kit mounted on a Photoflex 2200 LiteStand. We configured the 2200 with just a stud, so that we could get the soft box down to its lowest possible level. We then placed the background light directly behind the subject and tipped it slightly up to light the seamless paper for a light to dark gradation.

To illustrate the effects of the background light, we shut down all the other lights on the set and shot a photo with just the background light. We see the gradation of light on the seamless paper created by the Small Starlite Kit. With the position set for the background, we powered up all the lights on our set and shot our final images.

The examples below show a comparison of our light setup without and with a background light. Notice how the background light provided even more separation between our subject and the background.

Once all of the lights are producing satisfactory results in our portraits, we can “record” the placement of each light. This is where the string is used.

Each light (or light stand) used can have a string tied to it (figure 18). The string is then pulled taut toward the subject and cut just in front of the subject’s face.

The next time the lights are set up, each light can be set up in the same manner as the original set up by using these strings to keep the light-to-subject distances consistent.

The shots below show how each string is used to set the distance between each light and the subject.

The last step to prep your gear is to cut a line for your camera. We would suggest a length for this but the size of this line would depend on the focal length of lens you intend to use. So, set up your camera and frame up the image of your subject. Once you have established your shot, measure the distance from the subject’s nose to the base of your tripod head and cut a piece of line to that length plus 6 inches. Now you can attach this line to the tripod head and you are good to go. You can use this technique for all the lenses you use or make just one camera string with several marks for each lens.

Once you have established the “strings” for each of your lights and camera, setting up your new set and getting consistent portraits will be a cinch. This will allow your focus to be on the model, making him or her comfortable, and getting just the right look or pose, instead of worrying about your equipment.

This process can be replicated for any gear or shooting style you consistently use. You can also set different lines on these lights for people with glasses or for darker skin tones. Once you have spent a little time to prep the jobs you shoot with this method, future lighting set ups will only get faster and easier.

Indoor Portraits,


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